Pros and Cons of Waiting Tables: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly of Working in a Restaurant
What Are Common Restaurant Jobs? What is "Waiting?"
Waiting tables is a unique job in that ALMOST everyone (in the U.S.A. where I live anyhow) has been waited on at sometime in their life, and a very large number of people have worked in restaurants themselves. In the restaurant hierarchy, waiters and waitresses rank somewhere in the middle. As a waiter or waitress, you usually report to a floor manager or restaurant proprietor, must tip-toe around cooks and chefs and kitchen staff that you depend on, and pull rank on bussers and hosts/hostesses. But the waiting job is unique in that you have the most amount of contact with customers, are largely responsible for setting the mood of the customers experience, and depend on tips for a large amount of your income. As someone who has worked in restaurants of varying quality for more than 10 years off and on, I'll share some of my experiences with waiting tables, and take you through the good, the bad, and the ugly of working in a restaurant. If you are thinking about becoming a waiter or waitress, want to know more about what the job takes, or are just curious about what exactly a waiter does, read on!
Have you ever waited tables?
(tell us where you waited in the comments!)
Pros and Cons of Waiting Tables
Here is a quick list of the pros and cons of waiting tables. I will spend time diving in to each point below.
- Power dynamics
- Tips =(
- High stress
- Little advancement potential (often)
- Fast Paced Work
- Tips =)
- Meet Interesting People
- Applicable skills/resume building
Read on for explanations and insights related to each point, based on my personal experience as a restaurant worker.
Ryan Secrest, Justin Long, and Anna Ferris Star in the Fun (But Somewhat Unrealistic) "Waiting"
Pro of Waiting Tables: Food!
Who doesn't love a well cooked meal? Working in a restaurant usually means you get a free or cheap meal for every shift you work, and if you work at the same restaurant for a little while, you will become intimately familiar with the menu and be able to order your favorites however you like them. Especially if you become close with the kitchen staff (WHICH IS A MUST) you can often order things that are off the menu as well. At a brunch restaurant I worked at in highs school, I would order a smoked salmon omelette every week that to this day remains one of my favorite things in the world to order at any breakfast joint that has lox on the menu. Good food is what draws many people to the restaurant business in the first place, and being a waiter or waitress means you will get to enjoy good eats!
Waiting Theme Song #1
Pro of Waiting Tables: Fast Paced Work
Sadly for young workers or those looking for a new career, many entry level jobs are dead boring, slow, monotonous, and generally mind numbing. However, waiting tables is an entry level job that can be very exciting and interesting. This is because waiting is often a very fast paced job: when you get slammed with a lunch rush, you are on your toes for hours and time moves very quickly. While it can be stressful to work in such a fast paced environment (more about this later) most serving staff get accustomed to the adrenaline rush that comes along with working quickly and efficiently. Personally, the fast paced times of day were always my favorites at all of the restaurants I have worked at. The fast paced nature of waiting tables means things will stay exciting and you won't get bored, and time will pass faster.
Pro of Waiting Tables: Tips =)
Tips are one of the most exciting and misunderstood aspects of restaurant work, but if the conditions are right, they are a MAJOR entry in the "pro" column. Tips are what make it possible for some waiters and waitresses to make waiting a professional career: if you are working at a high end restaurant that stays busy, it is possible to pull several hundred dollars in tips per shift fairly easily. As a server, parties are your best friend. In most states, it is legal and expected that for parties of 6+, a waiter or waitress will automatically add 18% for tip on to the check, guaranteeing a good amount of tip money.
Of course, to get big tips, there is a certain level of finesse and art required. My two cents: be friendly and try to make a connection, and try alcohol/apps/extras.
Waiting Theme Song #2
Pro of Waiting Tables: Meet Interesting People
As a server, your restaurant will likely have many "regulars," or people who come to eat at your establishment frequently. As a waiter or waitress, you will have ample opportunity to get to know these people well, and can make some genuine friends. Even if you don't become best buds with your customers, you will get to meet any number of interesting people that walk through the door, and will small talk with all kinds of folks. Celebrities, local politicians, authors, people with interesting and unique careers and life stories: all of these customers are likely to be sat at your table sometime during your career. At a nice brunch restaurant I worked at, I had the pleasure of meeting George Lucas, Carlos Santana, and others, which makes for great stories.
Pro of Waiting Tables: Resume Building!
Waiting tables can be a summer job, or a lifelong career, all depending on personal ambitions and opportunities. As I mentioned, professional high level servers make fairly good money, and these skills are learned at a more entry level waiting position. No matter what career path you are looking in to, it is likely that there are some skills required of a waiter or waitress that would be transferable: from time and stress management, to people skills, to basic accounting, servers do a lot that is important in other lines of work. Even as a stand alone resume bullet point, waiting can be very useful: there are restaurants all around the world, and waiting tables can be a great fall back plan or part time job at all different phases in a person's life.
Con of Waiting Tables: Power Dynamics
One of the biggest cons of waiting tables that can really get to some people (but doesn't seem to bother others) is the inherent power dynamic at play that affects servers. First, you are literally "waiting hand and foot" on your customers: it is your job to make them happy no matter what, and this kind of relationship can be very demeaning. If your customers are crazy and have crazy demands, you are forced to cater to them or give up tips, putting you in a stressful position.
Second, there is a power dynamic within restaurants (which I mentioned earlier) between managers and owners/proprietors and servers. As the front lines in what a restaurant does and the employee who interacts with costumers the most, owners and managers are relying on you to bring in the money and create a good customer experience, and if you don't do this managers will be very angry with you. Even if you do your job well, there is a certain amount of ass-kissing that goes along with being a server: you have to keep managers happy to ensure they give you shifts, and have to be constantly on your toes to make sure that those above you are in a manager's good graces. While this is not too uncommon in any position, it is especially exaggerated in servers, and in general working waiting tables can feel demeaning and make servers feel inferior.
Waiting Theme Song #3
Con of Waiting Tables: Sexism and Racism
This "con" could be considered a sub-category of "power dynamics," but has some particularly nasty manifestations in the restaurant business. It has been widely commented upon that gender and race plays a wide role in the positions that people are likely to occupy in the restaurant hierarchy: women are more likely to be hostesses vs male hosts, males are more likely to be head chefs, minorities are more likely to be bussers or dish washers. In general, these patterns can create a disturbing atmosphere for servers. Additionally, sexism especially can dominate many of the interactions in a restaurant. As a white male I was never the victim of this kind of thing in my restaurant work, but I saw my female co-workers get treated in a demeaning way by managers and customers alike, often being sexualized and objectified against their liking.
Con of Waiting Tables: Tips =(
While tips can be a major boon for waitresses and waiters, they can be a huge disappointment as well. As a "tipped" worker, you will be making less than minimum wage from your hourly pay meaning you literally rely on tips, and this can be a huge negative for servers. First, you don't get to keep all of your tips: despite popular opinion, your tips are taxed usually, and additionally most restaurants have a policy where servers split a percentage of their rips with bussers and hosts/hostesses (which is a good and fair thing in most situations but is a drag when your tips are very low as a server). Second, when business is slow you may not be getting enough tables or costumers to make any decent tip money, and there isn't much you can do about this. Third, tips play in to the power dynamic I mentioned above: you literally have to cater to a costumer's every whim for their tips, and this can be demeaning and discouraging if tips are low. Finally, some costumers just don't tip what they should, which is sad and sucks and happens way more than you might think.
Waiting Theme Song #4
Con of Waiting Tables: High Stress
While the fast paced environment of serving tables can be a fun thing, it can also drive people insane. Waiting tables can be a VERY high stress job, with stress levels much higher that the money you are making deserves. This is because of a variety of reasons: you have to constantly suck up to customers and mangers, make sure cooks and chefs like you (or you won't get orders when you should), literally run when things get slammed and you have a lot of tables, go for hours without a break during rushes, and in general do a million things at once. The work can be very stressful for some.
Con of Waiting Tables: Little Advancement Potential
For many workers, there is nothing worse than a "dead end" job. And at many restaurants, that's exactly what a waiting job is: not terrible pay, not a terrible job, but no chance of moving up or getting anything better. Especially in smaller restaurants, the only real position above a server may be an owner/proprietor, meaning there is literally 0% chance for a server to get a promotion. Even at bigger restaurants with designated managers, there is often little possibility for servers to move up the ranks without a huge time commitment or additional education/training. This lack of career advancement can turn many people off of waiting work quickly, and make the field not very appealing.
The Cons of Waiting Tables Can Drive Some People A Little Crazy...
Waiting Tables: a Good Job With Some HUGE Negatives
Overall, I enjoyed my time working in restaurants, but there are many reasons why I don't wait tables now. The good? If you work at a decent restaurant and are able to get good shifts, the tip money can be very good once you hone your craft. The fast pace work is exciting to some people, myself included, and combined with the chance to meet interesting and unique people, waiting tables is not likely to get boring like many other jobs with similar education or skill requirements may. For millions of Americans, waiting tables is a great temporary job or a fulfilling career.
But the story isn't all sunshine and roses. The bad? Well, the tips for one. Yes, they can be good. Or they can be REALLY, REALLY bad. If the restaurant you work at is usually slow or doesn't have a lot of tables, you aren't likely to get rich off of tip money. Plus, the fast pace has a flip side for many as well: lots of excitement can mean lots of stress, and the wear and tear that serving can exert on a person both physically and mentally can be too exhausting to make the job worth it.
Unfortunately, there is a lot about waiting tables which is unique in a bad way. The ugly? Every restaurant has a power dynamic, between servers and management and servers and customers, which can lead waiters and waitresses to feel demeaned and lowly. You will have to scramble and kiss up to your costumers for tips, and tiptoe around your managers as well as kitchen staff, just to be sure you can do your job. Plus, there is a lot about the hierarchy of many restaurants that is sexist and racist, which can make for a disheartening work environment even if you are a white male like me not directly affected by a manager's prejudice. The power dynamic in serving can break many people's spirit, and make the work feel empty and disheartening.
However, on the whole, waiting tables can be the perfect job for some people at some times in their lives, and I do recommend it to anyone who has read this guide thoroughly and still wants to give it a try.
Questions about waiting tables? Ask in the comments and I'll answer based upon my experiences!
Thanks for reading!